State of the research about atlantic bibles

The particular character of the Atlantic Bibles was initially recognised by art historians, who were the first to identify the distinctive elements relating to the iconography.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pietro Toesca (Toesca P., La pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia. Dai più antichi monumenti alla metà del Quattrocento, Turin, 1912), to whom we owe the definition of the Atlantic Bibles, established the philological bases for the study of the decoration of these manuscripts.

The studies of Edward Garrison between 1953 and 1962 (Garrison E.B., Studies in the History of Mediaeval Italian Painting, Florence, 1953-1962 [reprinted London 1993]) represent a fundamental contribution to the study of the decoration of Atlantic Bibles. In particular, Garrison identified the distinctive elements of the ornamental vocabulary of these Bibles: large decorated initials in geometric style; initials running the entire length of the page at the beginning of the dedicatory epistle of St. Jerome and at the beginning of the Book of Genesis; the tables of the canons of Eusebius which precede the New Testament. Garrison also defined the distinction, now commonly accepted, between hollow shaft initials and full shaft initials.

Peter Brieger (Brieger P., « Bible Illustration and Gregorian Reform », Studies in Church History, 2 (1965), 154-164), went beyond the strictly philological and formal approach of these initial studies by demonstrating the importance of the relationship between the historical context of the ecclesiastical reform and biblical illustration.

Among the studies consecrated to the decoration of the Atlantic Bibles it is most important to mention the work of synthesis carried out by Knut Berg (Berg K., Studies in Tuscan Twelfth-Century Illumination, Oslo – Bergen – Tromso, 1968) at the end of the 1960s, as well as the studies of Larry Ayres*. Ayres among others showed that the decorations of the Atlantic Bibles were derived from the Touronian Bibles of the 9th century.

Other researchers, including paleographers, have followed in the footsteps of the art historians and become interested in the typology of the Atlantic Bibles.

Bernhard Bischoff (Bischoff B., Paläographie der römischen Altertums und des abendländischen Mittelalters, Berlin, 1986) describes the Carolingian minuscule of the Atlantic Bibles as “reformed”, which once again refers us back to the context of the ecclesiastical reform of the 11th century.

Paola Supino Martini (Supino Martini P., Roma e l’area grafica romanesca (secoli X-XII), Alexandria, 1987 (Biblioteca di Scrittura e civilità, 1)) has concerned herself particularly with the writing of these manuscripts in giant format. She came to the conclusion that the Atlantic Bibles had been copied by professional copyists who used the Carolingian minuscule, which they had learned by imitation from older models, instead of the romanesca, the writing commonly used in central Italy in the 11th century.

With regard to the textual tradition, as clearly shown by Laura Light (Light, “Version et révision du texte biblique”, Le Moyen Age et la Bible, ed. P. Riché and G. Lobrichon 1984 (Bible de tous les temps, 4), 55-93), scholars who have studied the textual tradition of the Bible in the 11th century and have also examined the text of Atlantic Bibles are rare: at the end of the 19th century Carlo Vercellone (Vercellone C., Variae Lectiones Vulgatae Latinae Bibliorum editionis, I, Roma, 1960) and Samuel Berger (Berger S., Histoire de la Vulgate pendant les premiers siècles du Moyen Age, Paris, 1893); at the beginning of the 20th century dom Henri Quentin (Quentin H., Mémoire sur l’établissement du texte de la Vulgate, Rome – Paris, 1922 (Collectanea biblica latina, 6)). In particular, Berger finds that the textual recension of the Atlantic Bibles has produced an actual “edited version of the Vulgate”, attesting to the effort made to define a pre-established model of the sacred text in order to promote the ecclesiastical reform. Within this tradition of the Vulgate, Berger identifies as evidence a group of Bibles which includes the Bible of Geneva, thought by him to have had its origin in Milan. However, Quentin suggests that the origin of this group of Bibles – identified by Berger and called the “Italian group” – is Rome and not Milan.

Most recently the typology of the Atlantic Bibles has once again aroused the interest of scholars, on the occasion of the exhibition organized by the University of Cassino, the first part being at Montecassino, the second in Florence. In particular, the preparation of its catalogue (Le Bibbie atlantiche. Il libro delle Scritture tra monumentalità e rappresentazione, Abbazia di Montecassino, 11 luglio – 11 ottobre 2000, Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, 1 marzo – 1 luglio 2001, ed. M. Maniaci – G. Orofino, Milan, 2001) led to the first “inventory” of the known Atlantic Bibles (about one hundred), most of which were briefly described.

The exhibition played a major part in shedding light on the production of Atlantic Bibles, and also stimulated renewed interest among specialists in book production in the Middle Ages.

It is on the basis of this exhibition and the accompanying research that I produced a thesis describing the complete physical analysis - codicology, paleography and iconography – of the Bible of Geneva (Togni N., La Bibbia atlantica di Ginevra: analisi di un testimone della Vulgata all’ epoca della Riforma gregoriana, tesi dell’ Università di Cassino, anno accademico 2001-2001). I concentrated in particular on the aspects characterizing the production of this manuscript: analysis of the writing surface, format, structure of the quires, layout, writing and identification of the copyists, and decoration. In the course of my work I also reconstituted the essential details of the historical milieu in which this Bible was commissioned by Bishop Frederic (1032-1073) and presented to the chapter of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre.

The project currently under way at the University of Geneva was stimulated by this renewal of interest in as complex a development as the production of the Atlantic Bibles in the 11th century.


* Ayres L., «A Fragment of a Romanesque Bible in Vienna (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. ser. nov. 4236) and its Salzburg Affiliations», Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 45 (1982), 130-144.

Ayres L., «The Bible of Henry IV and an Italian Romanesque Pandect in Florence» in Studien zur mittelalterlichen Kunst 800-1250, Festschrift für Florentine Mütherich zum 70. Geburtstag, éds. K. Bierbrauer – P. K. Klein – W. Sauerländer, München, 1985, 157-166.

Ayres L., «An Italianate Episode in Romanesque Bible Illumination at Weingarten Abbey», Gesta, 24 (1985), 121-128.

Ayres L., «An Italian Romanesque Manuscript of Gregory the Great’s ‘Moralia in Job’», in Florilegium in Honorem Carl Nordenfalk Octogenarii Contextum. Festschrift Carl Nordenfalk, Stockholm, 1987, 31-46.

Ayres L., «An Italian Romanesque Manuscript of Hrabanus Maurus’ ‘De laudibus Sanctae Crucis’ and the Gregorian Reform», Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 41 (1987), 13-27.

Ayres L., «Gregorian Reform and Artistic Renewal in Manuscript Illumination: The ‘Bibbia Atlantica’ as an International Artistic Denomination», Studi gregoriani, 14 (1991), 145-152.

Ayres L., «A Classicizing Byzantine Style and Manuscript Illumination at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Eleventh Century», in Hülle und Fülle. Festschrift für Tilmann Buddensieg, éds. A. Beyer – V. Lampugnani – G. Schweikhart, Bonn, 1993, 3-12.

Ayres L., «An Early Christian Legacy in Italian Romanesque Miniature Painting», Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, 46 (1993-1994), 17-24.

Ayres L., «The Italian Giant Bibles: Aspects of their Touronian Ancestry and Early History», The Early Medieval Bible : its Production, Decoration and Use, éd. R. Gameson, Cambridge, 1994, 125-154.